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484 Topics: American Movies – Sunset Boulevard; the Borscht Belt and the Chitlin’ Circuit; renumeration/remuneration versus reimbursement versus kickback; to print off (copies) versus to photocopy; nitty-gritty

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Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 484.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 484. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at ESLPod.com. Download this episode’s Learning Guide, an eight- to ten-page guide that includes a complete transcript of everything I say. The Learning Guide also has vocabulary lists, definitions, sample sentences, cultural notes, and a whole lot more.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about a famous American movie that some people say is one of the greatest movies ever made in the United States, called Sunset Boulevard. We’re also going to talk about two popular areas for entertainment in the early and middle 1900s: the Borscht Belt and the Chitlin’ Circuit. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Our first topic on this Café is a very well-known movie about Los Angeles. It’s a movie about Hollywood. It’s called Sunset Boulevard, and it was released in 1950. Sunset Boulevard begins showing the body of a young man, Joe Gills, floating dead in a swimming pool. When something is “floating,” it is in the water, but on top of the water. Well, if you have a body floating in the water, that probably means that person is dead, and that’s how the movie Sunset Boulevard begins.

A “boulevard,” I should explain, is another word for a large street or avenue. There is actually a street here in Los Angeles called Sunset Boulevard, and if you go to Sunset Boulevard, you’ll see a lot of famous bars and other entertainment businesses that help make Los Angeles what it is in terms of the entertainment capital of America.

Anyway, back to our movie. Sunset Boulevard begins with the scene showing a young man’s body floating in a swimming pool. The police go to the “scene of the crime,” go to where the body is, since it’s clear that this person has been murdered. He has been killed by someone. Next, we hear the voice of the man who was killed, Joe Gills, speaking as the narrator of the story. A “narrator” (narrator) is a person who tells the events of the story.

Next, as often happens in movies like this, the story goes back – we jump back in the story six months. Joe, we learn, is a scriptwriter in Hollywood who was not very successful. Hollywood – that is to say, Los Angeles – is full of people who want to be writers. They want to be scriptwriters. A “scriptwriter” is a person who writes the lines, the words, for movies and television shows and podcasts. Joe’s problem is that he’s not able to sell very many of the things that he’s written, his scripts. He owes money to people. He has borrowed money from other people, and he doesn’t have a job.

Finally, he visits one of the most famous film companies, or studios, in Los Angeles, Paramount Pictures. He tries to sell Paramount one of his scripts, but Paramount isn’t interested. They say no, and thus Joe finds himself in what we might describe as “dire straits.” “Dire (dire) straits (straits)” means that you are in a very bad situation, a situation that is difficult to fix. There was also an English rock band called Dire Straits, but that’s a different story.

Anyway, Joe is driving down Sunset Boulevard, thinking about his terrible situation, and he gets a flat tire. Most cars have four wheels, and on the wheels are tires, usually made of some kind of rubber. Well, when you have a flat tire, the air goes out of the tire and you can’t drive anymore, and that’s what happens to poor Joe. So, he decides to walk up to a large mansion on Sunset Boulevard and get some help. A “mansion” (mansion) is a very large house – the house of a rich person.

It looks to Joe as if no one actually lives in the house, so he walks into the house and begins looking around. In fact, someone does live there. The house belongs to a woman by the name of Norma Desmond. Who is Norma Desmond? Norma Desmond, we learn, was a famous movie star, an actress back in the days before movies had sound, back in the silent movie days.

However, she has been forgotten by the average person and now lives in this huge house with her butler, Max. A “butler” (butler) is a servant in a house, someone who answers the door and perhaps helps the owner get dressed. Butlers can do a lot of different things. Most people don’t have butlers, even here in Los Angeles, where there are a lot of rich people – or at least, they don’t call them “butlers” anymore. They call them “personal assistants.”

Anyway, Joe meets Norma and tells Norma that he is a writer. Norma shows him a script that she is writing about a famous character in the Bible, Salome. Now, if you don’t remember the story, Salome is the daughter of King Herod, and Salome dances for Herod and after she does so, Herod says that he will give her anything she wants. She then talks to her mother, and her mother tells her that she should ask Herod for the head of one of the followers of Jesus, a man by the name of John the Baptist.

Norma believes that this script that she has written about Salome is a good one and will make her a famous star again. Joe looks at the script and he thinks it’s terrible. He thinks it’s a very bad script, but he tells Norma that he thinks it’s actually really good, and he convinces Norma to hire him, to employ him, to give him money to write the script – to finish the script and to get it ready to be made into a movie.

So, Joe moves in to the house. He starts living at Norma’s house so they can work together. Norma then begins to take care of Joe’s financial problems. She pays off the loans that Joe has and Joe brings his clothes to the house and starts living there. He doesn’t like having to depend on, or rely on, Norma for money, but he doesn’t have any other choice. As they work together, Joe realizes that Norma is not exactly “in touch with reality,” we might say. She’s a little crazy.

The expression “to be in touch (touch) with” something means you are connected to something, you understand something. So when we say Norma is “not in touch with reality,” we mean she doesn’t really seem connected to the real world, which is just another way of saying she’s perhaps a little crazy. Norma lives in her own world and really believes that she’s still a well-loved, well-liked actress, even though we know she isn’t.

Joe finds out that her butler Max is also Norma’s first husband and first director. A “director” (director) is a person who’s in charge of making the movie, who tells the actors what to do and what not to do. Max sends letters to Norma that are supposedly from her fans, but are really just letters that he writes to make Norma feel as though she were still a star.

Max tells Joe that Norma is, in fact, a little crazy. She’s not mentally stable. “To be stable” (stable) means to not get any worse and not get any better, but when you say someone is “mentally unstable,” or someone is “not mentally stable,” you mean that person is a little crazy, has some mental problems. So, Max helps create this world in which Norma lives that isn’t really true. It’s a made-up world. It’s a fantasy world.

At first, Joe doesn’t want to be part of this fantasy, part of this made-up world that Max has created for Norma. Norma, unfortunately, falls in love with Joe, but Joe tells Norma that he doesn’t love her. When she tries to kill herself, when she tries to commit suicide, after learning that Joe doesn’t love her, Joe in fact does start to have a romantic relationship with Norma. Well, you can tell that this story is not going to have a happy ending. It’s not going to be happy at the end unless you think having a dead body in a swimming pool is happy.

Well, finally Norma and Joe finish the script about Salome, and Norma sends it to a movie studio. Norma knows people at the studio and talks to the most famous director at the studio, a man by the name of Cecil B. DeMille. Now, Cecil B. DeMille was a real Hollywood director. He directed some of the most successful Hollywood films of the twentieth century, and in the movie, he plays himself – that is, he is Cecil B. DeMille, the character as well as the real person.

Anyway, Norma sends this script to the studio in talks to Cecil B. DeMille. She visits the studio and is very excited to be back where they make movies. However, Joe and Max learned that the studio doesn’t really like the movie script at all, and they don’t want to work with Norma. They simply want to use one of her old cars in one of their movies, a “vintage car,” we might call it. The word “vintage” (vintage) describes something that is old, but is of a very high quality, in very good condition.

When Norma learns that the studio doesn’t want to make her movie, you can imagine she’s not very happy. I’ll let you watch the movie to figure out how it ends but you probably can guess. Sunset Boulevard was an incredibly successful movie in 1950. It was nominated for 11 Oscars. The Oscars, as you probably know, are the awards given by the organization – the largest film organization, to the best movies. They’re also called the Academy Awards.

Well, Sunset Boulevard won several awards. It won three awards for best music, best writing, and best art direction. The movie was directed by one of the most well-known movie directors of that time, Billy Wilder. William A. Holden was nominated for best actor for playing Joe, and Gloria Swanson, who played Norma, was nominated for best actress, although neither won the award.

It was important, however, for Gloria Swanson’s career. The movie really helped get Swanson’s career started. Like Norma, Swanson was a very famous silent movie actress who had not been in very many movies in the years up to 1950. Suddenly, now she was a Hollywood star again, unlike Norma, of course, who didn’t have a very happy ending. Fortunately for Swanson, the story of her life was much happier than the woman she played in Sunset Boulevard.

So, if you have a chance to see Sunset Boulevard, I think you’ll like it. It tells us a lot about fame and fortune, and in some ways, the story of Sunset Boulevard repeats itself every day, every year here in Los Angeles as people who were once famous are no longer famous, and that can cause a lot of problems. So, my solution is never be famous.

Our second topic on the Café is also related to entertainment, but not here in Hollywood, but rather in other parts of the country. We’re going to talk about the Borscht Belt and the Chitlin’ Circuit. Now, first of all, I should explain that “borscht” (Borscht) is a soup that is made with a red vegetable called beets. It’s very common in Eastern Europe and Russia and Poland and the Ukraine and so forth. It’s also very popular among immigrant communities from those areas, especially Jewish immigrant communities here in the United States.

During the 1940s up through, I would say, the 1960s, there was an area in northern New York that was very famous for summer entertainment, places where people would go during the summertime to relax and to be entertained. This area is known as the Catskill Mountains. It’s about 140 miles – that would be 225 kilometers – north of New York City. People would go to this area, to what we would call “resorts,” in order to have their holiday, their vacation.

A “resort” (resort) is basically a big hotel that usually has restaurants and other forms of entertainment. Many people go to resorts and they stay at the resort ¬– they spend the entire time inside the hotel and the areas around the hotel, having their vacation. Many of the people who went to these resorts were, in fact, from Eastern Europe and Russia, and many of them were Jewish.

And so this area in the Catskill Mountains began to be known as the “Borscht Belt.” The word “belt” (belt) usually refers to something that a man or woman puts around the top of his or her pants to keep the pants from falling down. But “belts” in a more general sense can be used to describe a specific area in the country that has some particular characteristic. Well, the Borscht Belt was an area in New York State that had a lot of these resorts.

Because people stayed at the resort, they wanted to be entertained during their vacation just like you might be if you went on a cruise on a large ship, and so there was nightly entertainment: there was music, there was dancing, and there was comedy – people who would stand up and tell jokes. So, a lot of comedians would go to these resorts and entertain the people who were there. Some of the most famous comedians in the mid part of the twentieth century had worked in this area, people like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman.

Once travel became easier and people could go to other places other than merely drive to a local area – such as the Borscht Belt, for those who lived in New York City – many of these resorts became less popular. There is, however, a movie that was made in the 1980s, in 1987, called Dirty Dancing, and it takes place in one of these resorts in what was known as, formerly, the Borscht Belt.

The other area I want to mention briefly here is something called the Chitlin’ Circuit. Like Borscht, “Chitlins” (chitlins) is a kind of food – in this case, it’s a food that is made from a pig. It’s pork intestine. It’s something that is quite popular in some parts of the United States, especially among African Americans in what we sometimes refer to as the Deep South, which is the southeastern part of the United States – states such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and so forth.

In fact, in many families, chitlins is what we might call a “staple” of their diet. A “staple” is something that you eat very frequently. In Ireland, potatoes is a staple of their diet. In many countries in Asia, rice is a staple of the diet. It’s something that people eat sometimes at every meal. Well, chitlins is a staple food, especially among the African-American community in the Deep South.

Now, as you probably know, until the middle of the twentieth century or so, there was a lot of discrimination against African Americans, especially in the Deep South. There was a lot of segregation. “Segregation” (segregation) refers to the separation of people based on some characteristic – in this case, based on the color of their skin. African Americans in many places were not allowed to go to the same restaurants as white people.

One of the things that developed during this period of segregation was places for African Americans to go and be entertained. African Americans had their own bars, their own restaurants, their own places where people could go and listen to music and other kinds of entertainment. Well, this collection of places that were popular among African Americans is sometimes called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” The word “circuit” (circuit) here refers to a number of different places that entertainers would go – first to one restaurant, then to another restaurant, then to another restaurant (or another bar).

These places, these “venues,” we might call them, were very popular with African-American entertainers, and because chitlins is a popular food in that community, it got the name of the Chitlin’ Circuit. Not all of the venues or places that catered to, or that specialized in, entertainment for African-American audiences were located in the Deep South. Some of them were in northern cities such as New York City.

The most famous venue would be the Apollo Theater in New York City, which is still popular among African Americans for entertainment, although of course we don’t have segregation, fortunately, anymore, and so you have a mix of people who go to entertainment in what used to be called the Chitlin’ Circuit. So, the Borscht Belt and the Chitlin’ Circuit are two parts of the mid-twentieth-century culture, areas where people would go to be entertained before we had YouTube.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes Roman (Roman) in Russia. Roman in Russia wants to know the meaning of “renumeration,” “reimbursement,” and “kickback.” I know, I was hoping for another “r” word, but we’ll have to answer Roman’s question as he asks it. Well, let’s start with the first word, which interestingly enough isn’t actually a word in English, although you will hear it and perhaps even see it in writing.

The first word Roman asked about is “renumeration.” Well, when I say it isn’t a word in English, it is a word in English. It means to number something again. “Re-” as a prefix means to do it over again, to do it more than once. “Renumeration” technically would be numbering something again. However, most people, when you hear it in conversation, are using it to mean another word: “remuneration” (remuneration). “Remuneration” is the pay or the reward that you receive for doing some job or some task.

So, if someone says, “I want remuneration for my work,” they’re telling you that he or she wants money or something that will serve as a reward for doing what he or she is doing. Now, to be honest, I’m sure I’ve made this mistake myself in writing, or at least in speaking, of using the word “renumeration” instead of “remuneration.” I’m sure I’m not the only American – many people have made this mistake – but technically it isn’t the correct spelling or pronunciation. The word should be “remuneration” if you’re talking about pay or reward.

The second word that Roman asked about is definitely a word, at least, with a similar meaning, and that is “reimbursement” (reimbursement). “Reimbursement” is when you pay someone back money that he or she has spent or possibly lost. The difference between giving someone money for doing something and “reimbursement,” typically, is that you are giving someone reimbursement for money that that person had to spend in order to do what you asked him to do.

So, for example, when I was at the university, I would go to conferences – I would go to scientific meetings. The university would “reimburse” me for some of my airfare and hotel and dining expenses. They would give me money for the money that I had to pay to do my job, which was in part to go to these meetings. So, “reimbursement” is money you give usually to an employee (someone who works for you) or a contractor (someone who does work for you) when that person has used some of his or her own money in order to get the job done. That’s “reimbursement.”

“Kickback” (kickback) is sort of related to the ideas of remuneration and reimbursement. It’s money that you give someone for some sort of favor that that person has done for you or some other kind of benefit that you have received – but it’s illegal. It’s a kind of “bribe” (bribe). Usually, a kickback is when, for example, you give money to a company that wants to do business with you, but you get some money back from that company illegally for giving them the work.

So, you might have two or three companies that want to work with you, and one company says to you, “Well, if you give us the job, we’ll give you ten thousand dollars back,” almost as a bribe, as a way of getting you to give them the contract. A kickback is some money or some benefit that you get illegally, usually in exchange for doing something for that person.

If you’re a restaurant and you want to open a new restaurant in your city, you need to get certain licenses, certain permits – permission from the local government to open your restaurant (at least, you do here in the United States). So, you go to the government official, the person responsible, and the person tells you, “Well, I’ll give you this license if you give me $10,000.” That would be an example of a kickback, an illegal bribe, in essence to get the restaurant permit.

Both of you will be in trouble if the government, if the police, find out about it. You can both be arrested and punished, both the person giving the kickback as well as the person who asked for the kickback or receives the kickback. In general, don’t try to get involved in illegal activity in any country, including here in the United States.

Our second question is from Alice (Alice) in China. Alice wants to know the difference between “to photocopy” (photocopy) and “to print off copies.” “To photocopy” means to use a special machine called a “photocopier,” or simply a “copy machine” to, in essence, take a little picture of a document, of a piece of paper, and to print that out on another piece of paper.

“To print off copies of something” is to use not a photocopier, but a printer. For example, on your computer, if you want to have copies of a letter that you’ve written on a word processing program such as Microsoft Word, you connect your printer to your computer and you can print off copies.

What’s the difference between “printing copies” and “printing off copies”? Nothing, really. We sometimes in English like to add these prepositions to words, often to give some sort of emphasis, although here there really isn’t any difference between “printing off copies” and “printing copies,” at least that I can think of.

So, “to print off copies” or “to print copies” is to use a printer, usually connected nowadays to your computer, in order to make a copy, to print a paper copy of something. “To photocopy” means to use a special machine that takes a picture of the document and then produces a copy of that picture on a piece of paper. A more common way nowadays of making copies of pieces of paper is to use what’s called a “scanner” (scanner), which produces an electronic file or copy of your paper document.

Finally, back to Russia again, Alexey (Alexey) wants to know the meaning of “nitty-gritty.” The term “nitty (nitty) – gritty (gritty)” refers to the important parts or details of a certain topic or situation. The nitty-gritty would be the small points, the small details, of some discussion or some issue. You may be reading over a contract, a legal agreement to do something. You have a general idea of the contract, but you really want to understand the details, the specifics. We would say you want to understand the “nitty-gritty” of the contract.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com. We’ll try to give you the nitty-gritty of the definitions in our future Cafés.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café was written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. Copyright 2014 by the Center for Educational Development.

Glossary
narrator – a person who tells the events of a story, usually in a book, play, movie, or television show

* Sometimes the narrator is the main character and tells the story from his or he point of view.

scriptwriter – a person who writes the story and lines spoken by actors in a movie or television or radio show

* Scriptwriters try to write dialogue that is convincing for each character.

to be in dire straits – to be in a very bad situation that is difficult to fix

* When Hans ran out of gasoline while driving in the desert, he realized that he was in dire straits.

mansion – a very large and luxurious house; a large and impressive house with many rooms

* When Mei and Kevin won the lottery, they bought a mansion next to the ocean with 10 bedrooms and two swimming pools.

to be in touch with (someone or something) – to be connected to someone or something; to be in communication with someone or something

* Amelie and Wala haven’t seen each other for many years, but they keep in touch with each other by emailing often and talking on the phone once a month.

director – the person who is in charge of filming a movie or television show and who supervises the actors and crew

* The director walked over to the lead actor to tell him to speak more clearly when saying his lines.

stable – for one’s health to not be in danger of getting worse, especially after surgery or an injury

* The doctor reported that Nika was stable after her emergency surgery to repair her broken jaw.

vintage – old but of high quality and in good condition

* Saku loved vintage clothing, especially dresses and shoes from the 1920s.

resort – a hotel where people go to on vacation with many activities for guests, such as water sports and health or spa treatments

* Every year, Sanjiv and his family goes to a resort by the ocean for a week where they swim in the sea, play tennis, and visit the spa.

staple – a main or important part of something

* Could you go to the store to buy some staples, such as milk and bread?

segregation – a period in the United States when laws forced people who were not white to be kept separate, using different services and having fewer rights

* During segregation, African Americans had to use different water fountains, doors, and waiting rooms.

venue – a place where an event happens, especially a show or performance

* Michelle and Emilio were happy that the venue they chose for their wedding reception was indoors, since it was pouring rain on their wedding day.

remuneration (renumeration) – pay; the pay or reward that one receives in exchange for the work or services that one has performed

* Olivia doesn’t believe the remuneration she receives for her work is enough for the amount of time she spends to produce it.

reimbursement – money paid back to someone who has spent or lost money, often while working or doing something for someone else

* All employees who pay for gas using their own credit card while driving their company car will receive a reimbursement.

kickback – a payment made to someone who has helped with a transaction, especially one that is illegal or against the rules; a bribe

* The teacher who referred her students to a tutoring company was fired for getting kickbacks.

to print off (copies) – to print many copies of a document through a printer

* Print off two extra copies of those color illustrations for the report.

to photocopy – to make a printed copy using a photocopier, a machine that uses light to produce an exact copy of a document or graphic

* We need to make 16 photocopies of these documents for the parents meeting.

nitty-gritty – the most important parts or the practical details of a topic, situation, or plan; the necessary and basic elements

* We’ve spent enough time talking about the general theme for the meeting. Let’s talk about the nitty-gritty and make some specific plans.

What Insiders Know
The Sunset Strip

The Sunset Strip is a mile and a half “stretch” (length) of road located on Sunset Boulevard in the middle of Los Angeles. It is famous for its restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, but more importantly, for the celebrities that “frequent” (visit) the area.

“The Strip,” as it is called, was located outside of the Los Angeles city limits during a time when Los Angeles did not tolerate “gambling” (playing games of chance for money) within the city, The Strip served as a location for these kinds of activities. In the 1920s, during the period of “Prohibition” (the outlawing of the making and sale of alcohol), alcohol was served secretly in “backrooms” (rooms behind the main business area). Several “casinos” (businesses that allow customers to play games of chance for money) and “nightclubs” (businesses that serve alcohol, with music and dancing for entertainment) started moving to The Strip, attracting people who worked in the “entertainment industry” (people who work in television, films, music, and other forms of entertainment).

In the 1930s and 1940s, The Strip built a reputation as a “playground” (place of entertainment) for the rich and famous. People who were important in the world of entertainment, such as famous actors, often visited The Strip. Even famous “gangsters” (people who work for organized groups of criminals) owned several businesses in the area.

In the 1960s, however, The Strip began to “lose its appeal” (become less attractive) to people in the movie industry, but remained popular among tourists and “locals” (people living in the area). But in the 1970s, during the rise of the “counterculture” (a subculture whose values and norms were different from the normal, mainstream values), The Strip became popular with bands like Led Zeppelin, who played at famous clubs like The Roxy. Today, The Strip continues to be a “hangout” (place where someone visits often) for young celebrities.